The United Nations
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. — Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Today is about some significant anniversaries.
For one, 70 years ago today the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. One of the authors of that declaration was a Canadian lawyer and diplomat named John Humphries, who was Director of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from 1946 until 1966.
For another, 61 years ago today Lester B. Pearson accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. It was awarded to him in recognition of his work at the UN, including his 1956 resolution that an international United Nations force be sent to the Suez Canal to deal with the crisis there. At the time, Pearson was the UN General Assembly President and Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs. He later served as Canada’s fourteenth Prime Minister.
The international force Pearson envisioned is today known as the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces. Seventy peacekeeping operations have been deployed since 1957, and 14 are currently still underway.
The phrase “United Nations” was first used by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 as a term for the 26 nations who came together to fight Germany, Italy, and Japan during World War II. These Allied Powers, along with 24 additional countries, met in San Francisco in June 1945 at what was called the United Nations Conference on International Organization. They drafted the United Nations Charter, which was signed by 51 countries and ratified in October of that year.
Today, the UN has 193 members.
Given that I’ve been to New York City four times before my most recent visit, I’d already ticked off most of the “Top Ten Things to Do in NYC” a long time ago. Except for one.
I had never been to the United Nations Headquarters.
Here’s a pro-tip from me: Don’t wait until your fifth visit to New York to go to the UN. It’s far too important an institution for any citizen of this planet to ignore.
The UN has offices in Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi, but its headquarters are in New York. The UN General Assembly meets here once a year. The UN Security Council also meets here, as often as necessary. Its five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) were all members of the Allied Powers during World War II. The Security Council also has ten non-permanent members, who are elected for two-year terms. Canada has served on the Security Council six times since 1945, the last term being from 1999 to 2000.
I learned all this from our Austrian guide. She also told us how the UN Headquarters is designated as international territory. You can feel that, actually, the minute you walk into the building.
The chairperson of the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. I’m going to finish this post by quoting what she said on the tenth anniversary of the declaration. Her words are ever so powerful and, given the current inclination towards ultranationalism that seems to be blanketing the globe, they are words we should all strive to live by.
Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world. — Eleanor Roosevelt